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Singin' the Blues

Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi carry a musical torch across America as the Blues Brothers.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
The Blues Brothers, Jan/Feb 2008

"Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen, It's Showtime," the disembodied voice of a backstage announcer echoes over the pounding downbeat of a blues boogie, "as the 11th annual Houston's Children's Charity presents for your exclusive listening and dancing pleasure, two men who live to keep the music of their Brother Jake alive. From Calumet City, Illinois, will you please welcome," the voice gets louder and more staccato, "the legacy Brother Elwood and the blood brother, Brother Zee. Here are Elwood and Zee, the genuine Blues Brothers."

The two men, wearing black suits, black fedoras and black Wayfarer sunglasses, make their entrance to a crescendo in the music, climb up the six feet of stairs and stride across the stage in front of the Sacred Hearts band, their arms straight, swinging in almost perfect unison as they glide from one end of the stage to the other and back again. The band breaks into "Sweet Home Chicago," keeping the rhythm steady and the music loud as the "brothers" reach for the microphones.

Within seconds, women wearing floor-length silk or satin gowns and men in tuxedos are out of their seats and flooding onto the dance floor. By the time Brother Zee, a.k.a. Jim Belushi, grabs the microphone to growl out the first lyrics, the dance floor is jammed, back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder, everyone moving to the irresistible beat of one of history's greatest blues songs. Brother Elwood, aka Dan Aykroyd, shakes his thing in a perfect duet with Zee, the music getting louder and the dancing getting more furious.

The Blues Brothers are doing their thing. Again.

Thirty years ago, the world first heard the raucous sounds of the Blues Brothers, as part of a skit on "Saturday Night Live," NBC's legendary comedy show. In three short years, the band, founded by Aykroyd and John Belushi, who was known as Jake Blues, spawned a live record album that sold 3.5 million copies and two additional albums, a 16-city nationwide tour and a movie, The Blues Brothers, that lives on today on DVD and television replays as a monument to America's cultural gem, the music genre called the blues. Some music historians reluctantly even give the black-suited duo credit for expanding appreciation of the blues in the United States. Today, the Blues Brothers Classic Revue with the Sacred Hearts band appears 10 to 12 times a year, mostly at charity and corporate events, at casinos around the country and at openings of House of Blues venues, the chain of music halls and restaurants cofounded by Aykroyd.

Each time they march onto the stage, Elwood and Brother Zee and the band make it clear they are there to do one thing: play the blues. In fact, the original Blues Brothers' movie provides the simple clue to what this band is about and what its two creators meant it to be. It's one line in the movie, repeated several times, but the phrase is still used today by Aykroyd and Jim Belushi when they talk about their music. Early in the movie, Elwood has just picked up Jake from a penitentiary and they've been stopped by the highway patrol, who discover Elwood's license is suspended. As he squeals away from the traffic stop, with the officers running back to their car to begin chase and Jake screaming that he is going to end up "back in the joint," Elwood says calmly, "They're not gonna catch us. We're on a mission from God." For Aykroyd, Jim Belushi and their Blues Brothers characters, the mission is alive and well.

The mission began in Aykroyd's teenage years as a young Canadian frequenting the blues bars of Ottawa where he grew up. His dad, Peter, worked as a bureaucrat in the Canadian government, for many years on the National Film Board.

"Music was a huge part of our lives," Aykroyd explains, a 45-year-old Cuban cigar stuck in his mouth during an interview in New York. "Every weekend he'd look in the paper to see which record collections were being sold, and he would buy secondhand records. I grew up listening to Fats Waller and Jack Hilton." But as he grew older, Aykroyd gravitated to a small blues bar called Le Hibou, where all the great blues stars came to play. "I would be there every weekend when I was 14 or 15," Aykroyd says. "I got to see Muddy Waters, and even jammed behind him one night." The blues legend had gotten impatient that his drummer was taking too long on a break, so he invited anyone in the audience to fill in, and Aykroyd jumped up. "He gave me the beat, and he said, 'You keep that beat going.'"

The weekly excursions exposed Aykroyd to Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, Cary Bell, Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite, the mouth harp, or harmonica, genius. Aykroyd's fascination with Musselwhite led to his first dabbling in the harmonica, which he continues to play today as part of the Blues Brothers band. But his more extensive, in-depth education in the blues came during his abbreviated tenure at Carleton University, where he connected with Doug Tansley, a man who worked in the university's audiovisual department. "One night I went to his apartment and he had a wall of blues albums," Aykroyd exclaims, waving his hand at a 20-foot wall. "I mean, it was…floor to ceiling, wall to wall, every conceivable blues album…. I started at the beginning of time and listened to Ma Rainy, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House."

Getting Aykroyd talking about the blues is akin to turning on a faucet. There's such a mastery of blues's history that he can spill out a CliffsNotes—like monologue in a few sentences. Unprompted, he ranges from the slave trade origins of the music, to field hollers sung while working, to the Saturday night front porch serenades with "a cheap Chinese harmonica, a cigar box banjo, and gut bucket bass and a washboard." He weaves in the influence of black gospel music with its piano and organ components, to the evolution of the Saturday night juke joint. The narrative spans musical events in America, east of the Mississippi from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta and eventually to the urban centers of the mid-South and North, such as Memphis and Chicago. Aykroyd could expand each topic into a lengthy oral defense for a post-doctoral dissertation.

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